Hamdeen Sabahi’s surprise rise
- BY MAI SHAMS EL-DIN
Cairo: The time of miracles has gone, but the results of the first round in Egypt’s presidential election suggested it might not be over yet. A possible miracle was in the making and its name was Hamdeen Sabahi.
As the results were slowly revealed over the course of one long night, observers and voters were expecting to see what corresponded to the opinion poll that consistently portrayed former Arab League chief Amr Moussa and former Muslim Brotherhood member Abdel Moniem Abol Fotoh as frontrunners.
The upset that relegated the pair to fourth and fifth place and replaced them with ex-air force commander Ahmed Shafik and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi found its logical justification. But it was Sabahi’s steady rise — at one point he was competing for second place with Shafik — that puzzled many.
The head of Al-Karama Party who adopts a socialist discourse with Nasserist imprints finished third with 4.8 million votes — 800,000 more than Abol Fotoh who finished fourth and 700,000 less than Shafik.
During the few hours when he had a chance to make it to the runoff on June 16-17, people clung to the possibility; the candidate who depended on a relatively underfunded campaign would have been a way out from having to choose between a representative of the ousted Mubarak regime and an Islamist.
The late discovery
Before the uprising that ousted president Mubarak in 2011, Sabahi had a symbolic campaign for presidency. But it was only a couple of weeks before election day that his candidacy caught the attention of voters and the media.
“A very big percentage of those who voted for Sabahi simply went through a process of elimination. People didn’t want to vote for the Brotherhood [meaning Morsi and Abol Fotoh] or for the old regime remnants [Moussa and Shafik],” professor of electoral systems at Cairo University Mazen Hassan told The Egypt Monocle.
“He managed to capture the satisfaction of voters who were stuck between those two options,” Hassan added.
In addition to banking on a background of opposition under Mubarak that landed him in jail, Sabahi emphasized that his role model was late president Gamal Abdel Nasser. As much as it spurred criticism for associating himself with a military leader that quashed dissent, the Nasser connection tickled others’ dreams of social justice.
The charismatic army officer who ruled Egypt throughout most of the 1950s and 60s implemented several nationwide projects that helped farmers and workers and opened access to education and health care.
Sabahi’s “one of us” campaign tagline fed into a profile that resonated with voters reminiscing about socialist policies.
“Sabahi always said he does not have enough money for campaigning and marketing. This actually granted him more votes because people felt that the LE 10 million ceiling for the [campaigning] budget is too much,” campaigning analyst Nehal Salah said.
“If you do not have the LE 10 million to market yourself, then you are an honorable person, who is really one of us,” was her reasoning.
Sabahi offset the funding challenges with a strong mass media presence. Instead of the billboards littering the streets with other candidates’ face, Sabahi’s was on TV screens.
He also benefited from the low-profile he was cast in for most of the race. A televised debate that featured the top two contenders — Moussa and Abol Fotoh — is believed to have hurt both candidates, driving a pool of undecided voters to consider other options.
“People felt uncomfortable with both candidates, so Sabahi started to build on this in a very positive way,” Salah said.
For some observers, the facts don’t correspond with the reasoning of Sabahi’s surprise rise. Miracles don’t happen, they insist.
The scarcity of his campaign resources — a logistical impediment to mobilizing mass support in a limited time span — and its dependence on volunteers rather than the professional public relations experts hired by other candidates, fed skepticism.
This stoked claims of fraud — Sabahi himself filed a court case to stop the runoff — and many were ready with theories of which players were controlling the game.
While most claims of election rigging or manipulation point to the ruling military council and in favor of Shafik, others accused the Brotherhood and its vast financial resources.
A Facebook page claiming to represent the MB deputy leader Khairat Al-Shater’s brief bid for presidency said Al-Shater had earlier donated LE 500,000 to Sabahi’s campaign. The goal, according to the page, was to undermine Abol Fotoh who was expelled by the Brotherhood in 2011 for going against its decision not to contest the presidential election. The group later fielded Al-Shater in 2012 but he was disqualified and Morsi replaced him.
The conspiracy theory was short lived; both Al-Shater and Sabahi denied it.
“Hamdeen Sabahi decided to run for the election in 2009 to face Mubarak and his inheritance of power project. In March 2011, he declared running for presidency months before Abol Fotoh announced his bid for the top post. Who was then groomed to divide the votes?” Hoda Abdel Baset, media coordinator of Sabahi’s campaign said.
The reason for all these conspiracy theories, she added, was inadequate and biased media coverage and “fabricated and “unrealistic” opinion polls that portrayed Sabahi as a non-contender.
“If the media was less biased, it would have shown Sabahi’s rallies in the provinces across Egypt which were attended by tens of thousands of Egyptians,” Abdel Baset said. “Sabahi’s rise was not sudden.”
A glimpse of leadership
His rise culminated in a humbling scene in Tahrir Square after the results. In a protest early June, he was carried on shoulders among thousands of supporters on the brink of stampede, raising their hands in unscripted idolatry.
It paved a path of leadership at a time of division and political bedlam.
He, along with other presidential candidates like reformist Islamist Abol Fotoh and the Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi, were asked to form a civilian presidential council to take over power, as many believe that the upcoming runoffs between Morsi and Shafik lacks legitimacy.
But as time passes and the runoffs approach, the idea seems to be fading.
Many criticized Abol Fotoh and Sabahi for “not forming a united front to combat the remnants of the old regime and the Brotherhood candidate. But now both are viewed as strong leaders … which the revolution lacked for a long time. Wise leadership,” Salah said.
“I hope he will capitalize on this in the future,” she added. –The Egypt Monocle